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European press, including some liberal Polish newspapers, rushed to suggest that the recent parliamentary elections have made Poland resemble Hungary: a xenophobic enfant terrible in the centre of Europe. This is sheer nonsense. These two states are very different, xenophobic rhetoric is not just a Polish-Hungarian specialty, and the winning party in Poland, Law & Justice (PiS), has undergone a profound change since it was in power a decade ago.

Comparing Poland to Hungary is like comparing monkeys to stones, to use Giovanni Sartori’s expression. Poland, unlike Hungary has not experienced an economic crisis over the last decade. On the contrary; its economy grew more than twenty percent! There is no fascist party in Poland’s parliament that resembles the Hungarian Jobbik. And Poland’s politicians do not have irredentist territorial claims like some Hungarian ones. It is true that numerous Polish and Hungarian politicians from different parties have made comments regarding migrants that are deplorable to put it mildly, but so have numerous politicians in other EU member states. This does not make me happy, but one should not single out certain states only and entertain misleading comparisons. For instance, some comments regarding migrants made by Theresa May are as disturbing as comments made by Victor Orbán, but does this mean that the United Kingdom begins to look like Hungary? Obviously not.

It is hard to predict which path the future government in Poland will take in an increasingly turbulent Europe. However, we know the record of Poland’s major parties in recent years fairly well. This record explains the victory of Law and Justice, and the defeat of their opponents, on the Right and Left of the political spectrum. Genuine democrats should not brand decisions taken by the demos as irrational if not mad. I am particularly uneasy when the electoral losers suggest that the voters were either uninformed or misled. Italian liberals linked to daily La Repubblica have done this each time the elections were won by Silvio Berlusconi and now Poland’s liberals linked to daily Gazeta Wyborcza seem to be following their example.

Why has PiS won?

First, PiS has been able to present a comprehensive program of social policy after numerous years of merry neoliberalism in Poland. True, this social program has many holes and it is not clear how it will be paid for. Besides, even good social programs can fade when faced with capricious and greedy markets. However, Polish voters have given this social program the benefit of the doubt because PiS, unlike their chief opponents, have not been identified with the new class of economic and political aristocracy.

Second, PiS won because it was led by a new generation of relatively young politicians. A smooth MEP Andrzej Duda, age 43, recently won presidential elections in Poland, and now Beata Szydło, age 52, led her party to victory in parliamentary elections. PiS is no longer led by the Kaczyńskis twin brothers, but by a trio of Duda-Szydło-Kaczyński. The latter, aged 66, may well lead the party, but most important offices of the state are now in the hands of his younger colleagues using a different language and relying on different political advisers than Kaczyński. Most crucially, Duda and Szydło enjoy an electoral mandate, which Kaczyński does not.

Third, PiS won because it was able to attract voters in the political centre by removing extreme and contentious slogans from its electoral agenda. Instead of talking about a plot behind the Smoleńsk tragedy which killed President Kaczyński, PiS was talking about pensions. Instead of talking about political purges it talked about family policy. A controversial blueprint for a constitutional reform has been removed from its site signalling a softer line attracting the centre. This move from the political fringe to the centre may have disappointed some party hardliners, but it gained PiS millions of votes. Of course, when in power PiS may well betray its social promises, a palace coup may demote Mrs Szydło, and extreme demands of the old party guard may resurface. However, were this to be the case PiS will likely lose the next elections. This is the iron law in modern democracy: extremism does not pay off at the ballot box.

Why have opponents of PiS lost?

The Civic Platform (PO) was defeated, first of all, because it lost credibility after many years in office. Voters did not believe that the party which created a mass system of precariat will now get rid of it. PO tried to frighten voters by telling them that the victory of PiS will make Poland anti-liberal. However, PO for many years was entertaining anti-liberal policies under the pressure of Polish bishops, for instance. A similar comment can be made regarding the United Left electoral bloc led by Leszek Miller who was Poland’s Prime Minister in 2001-2004. (The CIA secret detention centres were set up in Poland in this period).

Second, PO and United Left were defeated because they were more preoccupied with their internal squabbles than with concerns of the voters. Ewa Kopacz became Prime Minister because she could unite various factions within her party and not because she had a plausible political program and public communication skills. Leszek Miller refused to step down as a leader of his party despite opinion polls showing that this is suicidal. (In these elections United Left has not received enough votes to enter the parliament.)

Third, PO and United Left failed to elaborate a positive program of a modern and just Poland. It is hard to win elections by constantly repeating that the opponents are bad rather than offering voters a credible alternative. This alternative could hardly emerge in a party with no intellectuals within its leadership. Many prominent Polish intellectuals supported PO and United Left as a lesser evil compared to PiS. However, these intellectuals never had direct access to ruling PO circles. PiS, on the other hand, was able to engage numerous, albeit less prominent academics in drafting its program.

What will the future bring?

Speculating about the future of the electoral losers is even trickier than speculating about the future of electoral winners. Part of PO may join PiS leaving the rest marginalized. After all, differences between the two parties are more a question of style than ideology. However, PO can well survive by elevating to prominence younger politicians able to present a modern version of conservatism to voters. There will be no left wing parties in Poland’s parliament for the next four years, but this does not necessarily mean the end of left wing politics there. In fact, the Left now has a chance to re-emerge under the leadership of young politicians without a communist past, such as the charismatic Adrian Zandberg.

The future of Poland will also be shaped by external developments. Another economic crisis, or continuous migratory flows will make politics in most European countries ever more contentious with xenophobic undertones. The European Union’s failure to address these external shocks will only increase the rise of the anti-liberal tide across the continent.

Poland’s voters have put their future in the hands of a party with new leaders, but with a controversial past. The government led by Jarosław Kaczyski in 2006–2007 has antagonised many Poles and European partners. Let’s hope that PiS’s new leaders will be able to meet voters’ centrist expectations. Liberal democracy is not about politicised justice, amoral familism, xenophobic nationalism, or religious fundamentalism.

This post originally appeared at the ZEIT ONLINE.



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